We all fear . . . something. Some of us are afraid of LOTS of somethings.
Just one example is the fear of public speaking. There are countless studies showing public speaking is the most common fear among us. In fact, in numerous studies have shown many of us are more fearful of speaking in public than they are of dying.
Sounds a little dramatic, but I get it. When I was younger, I was terrified of speaking in public. I graduated from college at least a year later than I could have because I repeatedly (ahem, 5 times) dropped the public speaking class that was required to graduate. It was literally the very last class I took before I finally graduated.
Why is this fear so universally felt? Why are some people overjoyed at the excitement they get skydiving, when others would never think about jumping out of an airplane that is operating correctly? Why do you fear things that you know are irrational?
What is fear anyway?
In this guide, we’ll talk about how to conquer your fears by meeting them head on. We’ll start by defining fear, and revealing the process that explains exactly why you get scared of certain things. You’ll find out the origin of your personal fears, and what it is exactly that keeps your fearful emotions going. You’ll also learn how to recognize but ignore your damaging self-talk, and the differences between fear, phobias and anxiety disorders.
Then I’ll arm you with specific and proven techniques to help you identify what is fueling your fears. Then you’ll learn when to recognize your fears as real threats or inconsequential emotions, how to move past those thoughts causing you to be scared about a perceived outcome.
Let’s start by looking at some of the core reasons that cause you to be fearful so you can begin to push past your fears.
Where Do Your Personal Fears Come From, and Why Do You Get Scared?
Do you remember being scared of the bogeyman when you were a child? Almost all children learn to be scared of witches and monsters at a very young age, and it seems absolutely rational. These creatures are very real to young children. But, as we grow we understand that the witches and goblins of our childhood fairy tales don’t exist.
What made us so scared of these legends as a child, and absolutely unconcerned about them now? Put as a very simple question, what is it that makes us scared or fearful? Where do our individual and personal fears come from? Why are some people scared of a particular thing, when others are not?
Science tells us that you get anxious, scared, or fearful of an object, a person, an event, or an outcome for three primary reasons:
- partly because of instinct,
- partly due to your own personal experiences, and
- partly because somebody else has taught you to be scared of that thing.
Think of this scenario for a minute. A new restaurant opened up near your home, and you’re anxious to check it out. However, your friend, someone whose opinion you appreciate, tells you it sucks.
She tells you the service was horrible, it took over an hour to get seated, the prices were crazy, the food was meh, and—you get the idea.
This is an example of being taught to be anxious about something. The opinion of someone you respect and care about taught you to be fearful.
On the other hand, you could become scared or fearful because of instinct and hardwired survival behaviors. You instinctively know that fire can burn you, for example.
And finally, you can become frightful about a situation, object or event because your own experience teaches you to be fearful. This explains how a near-drowning incident may lead you to fear being around a large body of water. Traumatic events, whether you experience them or see them on the news, teach you to be afraid of something. Whether through instinct, personal experiences, or the teachings of others, you learn to be scared.
What Keeps Fear Alive?
Sometimes what keeps fear going is the chemical process that happens in your brain when you get scared. Abigail Marsh is a professor of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She explains that you can become scared of something, and continually keep that fear living as one of your 5 senses creates an anticipation of harm or danger.
Below is the video, The Chemistry of Fear, by Abigail Marsh, and her most recent book, The Fear Factor, published earlier this year is pictured on the left.:
Here’s another scenario to consider: You plan on going to a haunted house on Halloween. Deep down, your instincts know you’re going there intentionally to experience some good-natured fear. The pilot light on your fear instinct is always burning, and now it gets a little bit stronger. Your past experiences have told you that you’ll see things like skeletons and other objects associated with fear when you go to a haunted house, and that none of them are real.
As you approach the house, your fear begins to grow a little stronger.
Sure enough, as you’re guided through the haunted house, a skeleton jumps out, you jump and squeal with fear.
(content warning: sciencey stuff; bear with me a minute) This happens because your amygdala, a small area of your brain located at its base, sends a chemical called glutamate to two separate areas of your brain.
The first glutamate response is one that causes you to physically freeze or jump. The second signal causes your hypothalamus to switch on your autonomic nervous system, which powers the fight or flight instinct that has kept human beings alive for centuries.
Your heart rate is instantly elevated, your blood pressure goes through the roof, adrenaline surges throughout your body, and you feel a physical and emotional rush. This is a natural and automatic response.
What keeps your fears alive is a lack of action on your part to reprogram your experience.
Through conscious thought and physical behavior, you can learn to experience very little to no fear the next time you see a spooky skeleton. The same is true with just about any other fear you have, whether you see it as rational or irrational.
However, this is not always the case with a phobia or anxiety disorder, which are both vastly different than a simple fear.
The Difference Between Fear, Phobias, and Anxiety Disorders
You may have a fear of being attacked by a bear, which is a sensible fear. It’s based on instinct handed down by thousands and thousands of years of your predecessors. Back when humans confronted dangerous animals on a daily basis, this was a rational fear. It still exists in your instinct, because your brain wants you to keep existing, and if you don’t have the common sense to run away from a hungry bear, you’ll cease to exist.
An anxiety disorder is much different than a simple fear.
Regular anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It can help you prepare, learn new behaviors and pay attention. An anxiety disorder is extreme anxiety, sometimes panic attacks, and is characterized by relentless worry and fear that is strong enough and constant enough to interfere with your daily life.
Anxiety disorders can be diagnosed by a mental health professional or psychiatrist. Untreated, they can lead to a person totally withdrawing from society, and in severe cases, an inability to care for themselves, and even suicide attempts.In the United States, 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder. Sadly, only about 1 in 3 receive treatment.Click To Tweet
A phobia is classified as an anxiety disorder where the feelings of anxiousness and fear last more than 6 months, and the condition is characterized by anticipation of a future negative outcome or threat. Someone with a fear of heights, for example, has what is called acrophobia. Approaching a tall bridge in a vehicle immediately cranks up the anxiety response for this type of individual.
Simple fears and concerns are natural, and in most cases don’t require treatment other than reprogramming your self-talk. The final section of this guide on facing your fear will give you two simple ways to turn your self-talk from negative to positive.
In the case of a phobia or anxiety disorder, however, treatment by a trained mental health professional is always the best course of action.
This post of full of LOTS of great info, so I’ve put it all together in a FREE EBOOK with a BONUS Get-Started-Today Checklist that isn’t included here. Download and save it for later, or get started today and have it on hand while you work on overcoming your fears!
Your Fear-Busting Toolbox
In this section, you’ll learn specific methods to push past your comfort zone and fears for better goal achievement and success in life. Below are a few tools and techniques that can help you recognize your fears, identify them as either irrational or rational, put them aside, and move forward with your life.
Visualize the Intended Outcome
If you’re scared you may fail at something, or some other potentially negative outcome is causing your anxiety, it’s important to stop focusing on the negative. Visualize your success or goal achievement. Instead of being scared of failure, get excited about success. Your subconscious will automatically and systematically pursue whatever you get it to focus on. This is how constant negative thoughts often lead to negative results, and you can push past your fear for success and achievement by instead focusing on a positive outcome.
Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario
When you’re faced with fear or anxiety, ask yourself this simple question, “What is the worst that can really happen?” Be honest—what is the worst possible result of the behavior which is scaring you, or of the situation which makes you anxious?
Again, be brutally honest with yourself. If you are petrified with fear that you’ll fail your driving test, the worst possible outcome is that you fail. That’s not a huge issue, right? You can always go back another day and keep going back until you are successful.
Imagining the worst-case scenario often bursts that fear bubble.
Meditation has been used for thousands of years for stress-relief. Amazingly, regular meditation can lead to less inflammation in the human body. This means that by taking some time every day to clear your thoughts and focus only on the present moment, physical and mental health are your rewards.
Regular physical activity works a bit like meditation to clear your brain. Exercise also triggers the release of hormones and chemicals that cause your brain to feel happy and upbeat, simultaneously reducing levels of stress-related hormones. And this response begins almost immediately upon moderate to intense physical activity.
It’s harder to be fearful when you’re feeling happy and positive.
Write it Down
You can really take the steam out of your fears by simply writing them down. Journaling about your irrational fears makes them far less powerful.
Take the time to write down your fears, and begin working through some more possibilities. Doing this regularly may help you realize that your fears are unfounded, and not nearly as powerful after all.
Push Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Psychology Today’s assessment of fear reminds us that fear is healthy. If you didn’t fear a possible negative outcome related to some dangerous behavior or action you are about to take, you wouldn’t live very long. Curiosity could most definitely kill the cat.
Neuroscientists have identified patterns of communication that connect your prefrontal cortex and limbic system which show that the human brain is literally hardwired for fear.
While great accomplishments happen when you step just out of your comfort zone, a fear response is still triggered. But this doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to eliminate feeling fearful or concerned about particular situations. It simply means that you should identify fear as a normal response, appraise the situation, find out if your fears are grounded or irresponsible, and then take whatever action is necessary.
Scientists that study the brain have shown that a lack of fear is sometimes a sign of serious brain damage. Try not to be scared of fear. Embrace it, and understand that this is the way your brain keeps you alive, by constantly using your 5 senses to scan your environment for possible dangers. This can keep you from making silly and sometimes life-threatening mistakes.
And it’s important to remember that science has also shown that when you identify your personal boundaries of comfort, and step just pass them, incredible achievements are often your reward.
“Nobody ever died of discomfort, yet living in the name of comfort has killed more ideas, more opportunities, more actions, and more growth than everything else combined. Comfort kills!”
This quote is from T Harv Ecker, a philosopher, successful businessman, and best-selling author of the book Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.
The book spells out how comfort leads to low-risk, low-reward behavior. You’re happy with what you have right now, so why rock the boat? Why attempt to do something that you have always dreamed of or desired, if there are possible risks associated with those behaviors?
This is exactly why you need take small steps outside of your comfort zone from time to time. Don’t let that comfort and contentment with your current situation prevent you from achieving your dreams.
Two psychologists in 1908 identified a relationship between achievement and personal discomfort. John D. Dodson and Robert M. Yerkes specialized in behavioral research. They wanted to find out if those people that push themselves outside of their familiar and comfortable environments were more or less likely to achieve great things. They identified a “state of optimal anxiety,” which leads to significant performance, achievement, and goal attainment.
This area of optimal anxiety is located just outside of the environment or experiences where you feel comfortable. The two researchers found that it’s important to be careful, because if you take huge leaps and bounds away from your comfortable, recognizable environment, this is when performance and productivity tend to fall off of a cliff.
Remember the optimal words—just outside of—your comfort zone.
For example, let’s imagine that you are scared of snakes. (ugh. I HATE snakes.) Just reading the word “snake” triggers a stress response that may cause you to become overly anxious.
In this case, a good first step would be watching a trained herpetologist handle a small snake. View the video online or on TV, rather than in person. You are smart enough to know that the snake poses no danger, and you can stop watching whenever you like.
Once you take that small step outside of your “snake” comfort zone, larger steps are more possible, because your area of comfort is expanding gradually. Eventually, in a few months or even a year, you’ll be more likely to build the courage to handle a snake yourself and will have defeated this personal fear.
The Pareto Principle
About the same time Yerkes and Dodson were discovering the link between discomfort and achievement, an Italian economist noticed essentially the same thing, but in an entirely different field of research.
Studying landowners in Italy, economist Vilfredo Pareto uncovered an 80/20 rule that applies to most things. After noticing that roughly 80% of all Italian land was owned by just 20% of the population, he wondered if this ratio was applicable in other areas.
His study revealed the fact that 80% of a crop will come from 20% of the plants, and that 80% of your rewards or achievements come from approximately 20% of your efforts.
Combining this with the Yerkes/Dodson discovery means that if you put yourself in a situation where you are 80% comfortable and 20% anxious or uncomfortable, you will realize the most achievements, and slowly conquer your fears.
As you tiptoe slowly but consistently away from your area of knowledge and experience, your skill set grows as your fears diminish. In a short time, you can look back over your shoulder and realize that your past fears may have been unfounded, since you easily pushed past them, albeit gradually. And the self-confidence you gain in the process allows you to meet future fears head on, stepping outside of your comfort zone to conquer them as well.
- Remember that fear is natural, it is a normal human response.
- Identify your fear. Spell it out, recognize, point at it, understand that it exists, and that for you, it is a real feeling.
- If you desire to get past your fear or anxiety, take baby steps to confront it. You can eat an entire elephant if you do it just one bite at a time.
- After taking small steps out of your comfort zone, stop. Look around you and realize that your fears were far less daunting than you imagined. Give yourself a pat on the back, and reward yourself for doing something that was uncomfortable to you.
- After pushing your area of knowledge, experience, and comfort just a little bit, take another baby step. These gradual steps will eventually and significantly expand your area of comfort, and reduce your fear and anxiety.
Reprogram Your Self-Talk and Eradicate Your Limiting Beliefs
Sometimes facing your fear is simply a matter of reprogramming your brain. The human brain is very malleable, meaning it’s very flexible and limber. You know how to do things today that you weren’t able to do years ago.
Because you taught your brain what to do in specific situations, giving it the knowledge it needed to tell your body how to react.
Your first attempt at riding a bicycle was probably accompanied by some scratches and bruises. In a very short time, maybe in just a few minutes or less than an hour, you were riding your bicycle like a pro. And now you don’t need to give a second thought to hopping on a bike and going out for a ride.
In the same way you trained your mind and body to work together to master riding a bike, you can reprogram the way you experience and respond to your usually negative and nonstop inner voice.
We talk to ourselves. A lot.
Sometimes we do it out loud, but our it’s unconscious inner chatter that seems to go 100 miles an hour and never stops. Our propensity to talk to ourselves as human beings has a lot to do with fear and our survival instinct. If we didn’t question our behavior and actions before we attempted to do something new or difficult, we may engage in dangerous or potentially deadly behavior.
This is why our inner voice is generally skeptical and negative, rather than positive and encouraging. Directing that self-talk into a direction which is more likely to lead to success and achievement, and away from fear and anxiety is not that hard to do.
If you fail at attempting to do something, you may unconsciously engage in silent self-talk that portrays yourself as a failure, an idiot, and maybe a loser. None of which is true, but sometimes we’re complete assholes to ourselves.
When this happens, take the power out of your unconscious belief. Make a conscious effort and tell yourself, “Each time I fail, I am closer to success. I did better this time than I did before, and I know I can do this.” Tell your inner mean girl (or boy) to zip it up and put a positive spin on your negative self-talk.
You can do that by following the four-step system below. It’s proven to turn a negative inner voice into positive encouragement and future success.
Acknowledge Your Self-Talk
Initially, just be aware of your inner voice. Is it negative or is it positive and encouraging? Either way, simply acknowledge what it is saying and make observations as if you’re watching someone else have a conversation with himself.
Start Changing Your Thoughts
After you’ve acknowledged your inner voice, think about what it’s saying. If you are positively encouraging yourself, your job is done. But if your inner chatter is negative, you need to slowly begin modifying it.
If your inner voice tells you that you are bad in social situations, tell yourself the opposite. Consciously say to yourself, “I used to be socially anxious, but I’m getting more and more comfortable being around other people. People like to spend time with me, and I’m really starting to shine in this area of my life.”
Practice Gratitude When Negative Self-Talk Appears
If negative self-talk is starting to bring you down, take a deep breath and try to clear your mind; close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths.
Once you’ve settled yourself a bit, identify an area in your life in which you’re truly blessed and appreciative. No matter what your negative inner voice focuses on, reminding yourself that you have amazing friends, a wonderful family, or even that you’re going on vacation next week will transform your mental focus to something positive, rather than something negative.
Observe and Journal Your Self-Talk
Another great way to reprogram your belief system is to start recording your self-talk in a diary or journal. Keep a journal, or even just a small notebook, with you at all times and try logging all verbal and nonverbal self-talk whether it’s positive, negative, or neutral. Then check it every week. Highlight negative and positive talk with different colored markers, and every week, take notice of the topics where your inner voice was negative. You’ll soon see patterns in your behavior and thoughts. You’ll notice your negative thoughts occurred because of a particular outside stimulus or at a certain time of day.
After your first week of observing and journaling your thoughts, the next step is to take action. When you catch yourself engaging in negative self-talk, tell yourself to “cancel” or “stop.” Immediately replace negative talk with positive encouragement. You can do this out loud or silently.
Use the present tense and talk about a future situation. This may be difficult at first, as you are essentially programming yourself with something you believe to be untrue. It’s important to be patient with yourself here.
For instance, if you’re a lousy basketball player but it’s something you’d like to improve at, you might try the following after a particularly poor game. Your self-talk may immediately tell you that you suck and should just give up. When that happens, try saying something like this: “I am a great basketball player, and am only going to be even better in the future.”
This may be hard for your conscious mind to believe, because your mind understands the difference between a truth and a lie.
However, your subconscious doesn’t understand the difference between a lie and the truth. It believes what you tell it, true or not. If you speak in the present tense often enough about a future outcome or state, you can change your beliefs.
If you implement this simple habit daily, and continue to update your self-talk journal you’ll begin to see more and more instances of positive talk, and fewer situations when your inner voice is detrimental and negative.
If you combine these thought transformations while slowly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and using the items in your fear-busting toolbox we discussed above, you will:
- gain more control over your fears,
- dissuade yourself of them, and
- live the life you’ve always wanted to live!
Head down to the comments, and let me know what you think and how you’re doing. What are you afraid of? What are some other ways you’ve been successful at battling your fear?
And I’ll be SUPER GRATEFUL if you SHARE THE LOVE!
As always, sending you warm fuzzies,
Don’t forget to grab everything from this post in a FREE EBOOK along with a BONUS Get-Started-Today Checklist. Download and save it for later, or get started today and have it on hand while you work on overcoming your fears!
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